Washington State has made it illegal for employers to compel employees to share their login details or connect with them on social media.
When does a job interview get too personal? According to a new bill signed in Washington state, that line can be drawn when an employer asks a potential hire for his or her Facebook password.
By signing bill SB 5211 this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made the state the eighth one so far to pass law protections for workers and job candidates who might not be willing to divulge their social media login information to their bosses.
Oregon and Colorado are considering similar measures now and Michigan, California, Illinois and Maryland have already passed their password protection bills last year.
"We’ve seen a trend nationwide with legislatures passing this kind of legislation," said Dave Maass, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. "It all started following media reports and complaints indicating that employers are using this as a tactic both for screening potential employees and for looking at current employees."
Maass described the practice of requesting Facebook login credentials as "incredibly invasive" on the part of the employer.
Washington’s Employer Social Networking Law prohibits employers from requiring people in the office or applicants in job interviews to share their Facebook, Twitter and other social media passwords.
It also bars employers from trying to "compel or coerce" employees or job applicants "to add a person, including the employer, to the list of contacts associated with the employee’s or applicant’s social networking account."
However, the bill does have an exception built in. Companies are permitted to request "content" from employees' social media sites in internal investigations.
Some, though, question the necessity of the legislation in the first place. Jenifer Lambert, a spokesperson with the Seattle recruiting agency Terra Staffing, called the bill a "classic example of a solution looking for a problem."
"I have never heard of an employer asking an applicant or employee for their social media password nor could I ever imagine any employer who would," Lambert wrote in an email. "What job-seekers and employees should be more concerned with is the amount of information they post that requires no password for anyone, including an employer, to view."
With the growing ubiquity of online social media, Maass said it’s important to understand that granting someone else access to a private account like Facebook isn’t just invasive for the person disclosing the login details.
"Beyond that, people don’t realize that when you’re on Facebook, you’re having a variety of private confidential conversations" with people whose communications are now no longer considered private exchanges.
For example, he said, a person who mentors someone on Alcoholics Anonymous and corresponds through Facebook private messaging might be unwittingly exposing the other party’s identity.
"You just gave all that information to a stranger in the process of going for your job," Maass said.
"A lot of people want to have a work-personal life wall, and forcing people to create this pathway between the two, that’s a real infringement on people’s personal life."
Bruce Johnson, a Seattle-based lawyer with the firm Davis Wright Tremaine, welcomed the new bill, but questioned whether it goes far enough.
"This doesn’t even deal with employees’ personal email accounts, and it’s odd that you wouldn’t extend it," he said. "It singled out social networking as the basis for their protection, but I think there’s a lot more private information communicated in personal emails."
Johnson acknowledged that reviewing a Facebook, Twitter or Myspace profile could be useful in evaluating how a prospective hire’s personality might fit in with the values of a certain company or organization.
"I have friended employees in my law firm. I haven’t ‘compelled’ or ‘coerced’ them, but ultimately a friending decision is really an exercise of First Amendment activity," he said.
How to deal with a boss or employee requesting to be added to a social media contact list has, in recent years, become a dilemma for human resources professionals.
Lisa Stamatelos, an adjunct professor of human resources management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York, said the choice is ultimately left to a person whether or not to accept the request. In her opinion, though, it’s not always the best idea to give an employer such a personal glimpse into your private life.
"There’s no need for that. This is social media; it’s not work-related. Let’s focus. If they don’t want to be your friend, they don’t need to be your friend," she said.
When states began passing the password protection laws, Stamatelos asked her students how pressured they would feel to give an employer their Facebook login details in an interview if it meant they might lose out on a coveted job opportunity.
Many said they would be tempted to walk out and end the interview, she said. But several of her students said they might allow a potential employer to "shoulder-surf" — or browse their social media profiles only after the primary user had already logged on in private, thus allowing them to keep their passwords to themselves.
Stamatelos said she always advises her undergrads to consider what they’re posting online using "the grandma test."
"That is, take down those belly shots. If grandma comes across this, are you going to be embarrassed?" she said. "And even if an employer doesn’t ask to see your Facebook page, what if they do come across it? Are you comfortable with everything that’s on there?"